Harvesting Amanita muscaria
Depending on your climate Amanita muscaria will fruit from late Summer until Fall. In my own area of the upper Ohio River Valley the mushrooms will stop fruiting concurrent with the falling of the leaves. It is a beautiful sight to come upon a patch of these mushrooms, ranging in size from 2 inches to nearly a foot in diameter, and anywhere from a deep yellow or orange to a soft yellow or orange. Many will be dark orange at the apex surrounded by a halo of yellow. Some of the most recent ones I’ve gathered are of a pure gold, while others are the pure white A. muscaria v. alba. The stems can also be variable, from thin to thick, with basal rings or without, with small bases or bulbous. Though many mycologist give very detailed descriptions, I have spoken with some individuals that say the species has quite variable features, even among the red variety. A very good book to read regarding Amanita recognition and identification is David Arora’s Mushrooms Demystified.
My own method of searching out this mysterious mushroom is by driving through the suburbs after a day of good rains or a nice misty night and passing slowly through the neighborhood peering under pine trees. In our area we have numerous old pines scattered around homes, but very few that grow in the wild. Many of the limbs grow all the way down to the ground. Therefore it may be necessary to look under the trees, especially if they are in a dense clump. I can imagine someone looking into their backyard and seeing me climb out from under a clump of their trees with a handful, or sometimes a box-full, of mushrooms. But it’s not hard to find these mushrooms – I’ve also seen many growing nearly 5 yards from the nearest tree.
Since these mushrooms grow almost always in residential neighborhoods I can often be found stopping at the side of the road rather quickly. I sometimes feel that I should have a sticker that says “this vehicle comes to sudden stops.” Of course I put my blinkers on and jump out for the gathering, many a driver and homeowner peering at me as I wave to them with a handful of Amanita mushrooms. Usually this can be done rather quickly and you can be on your way to the next patch, but sometimes, especially if a lot of mushrooms are present, or if they are in a sensitive area of the yard, you may want to ask the residents for permission. Occasionally I will go to the door and ask if I can collect their bounty. This gets many strange comments, including how they are toadstools and poisonous, or inquiries asking what I plan on doing with them. I have a number of different reasons for gathering them that are dependent on my first impression of the individuals. I most commonly say they are going to be sold to a friend who uses them for arts and craft. Sometimes I will say they can be eaten, but that they have to be prepared a certain way or else they will be poisonous, and once I even claimed I was a biology student at the local university collecting them for study. When doing these runs into other peoples’ yards I recommend that one dress as normally as possible. If you do happen to have a run in with a resident be as friendly as possible and think fast about what to tell them. And if you get engaged in conversation about the mushrooms ask them what they know. You may be able to find out about their own cultural understanding of the Amanita.
You will find that the mushrooms will continue growing under a certain stand of trees for the season and you can return there once or twice a week. Interestingly, I have found many Amanita mushrooms growing in one spot one season, but upon my return the next season they have not returned. Therefore I recommend that you allow the mushrooms to sporinate before harvesting and that you also leave a few to follow the normal cycle of life and return to the earth. One year I collected so many from the local golf course that the next year it was almost devoid of them. You should have seen me walking around with a bag collecting mushrooms as golfers, who often mistook the unopened caps for their golf balls, looked on in wonderment.
Once you get near the mushrooms, sit among them for a few minutes if possible. They are a wonderful sight to behold and have a very mysterious resonance about them. Admire them for a little bit before they become sacrificial victims. Most of the time you will find the mushrooms in many different stages of growth, from just raising their round heads above the ground to total decomposition. The ones you really want to look for are those that are dried on the stalk as these are said, by some contemporary commentators and the native Siberians, to be the most potent in regards to effects. These are also the most difficult specimens to find simply because the weather conditions have to be perfect to allow the mushroom to dry without rotting. The second most desirable state is those that are in the process of sporination. These can be recognized by the nearly horizontal parasol, upturning parasol, or tears in the striations along the edge of the cap. The least desirable specimens are those which some might consider the most desirable. They are the ones that are still in the process of expanding and are not in sporination, but which are the most divine looking in shape and color. If at all possible leave these behind and come back in a day or two to see if they are still around. It is said that the smaller ones are the most potent as well, but remember to get them after sporination. When removing the Amanita I recommend first giving the cap a few good taps to knock out spores for future harvests and then cutting off the cap at the uppermost part of the stem. If in sporination, the stem should be ripe with fallen spores that will eventually make their way back into the ground.
The most common enemies to the Amanita are gnat larvae, snails, squirrels, deer, lawn mowers, and polluted rain. Gnat larvae are probably the worst enemies, drilling up from the stem and into the cap, often devouring the gills and inner meat while avoiding the immediate cap, possibly due to its chemical makeup. Snails don’t do much damage, but will often leave a hole or two through the stem and cap, as well as some dried slime. Squirrels usually just take a bit or two, leaving a majority of the cap, but a deer will bite the whole cap off, leaving just a stem poking out of the ground. The worst fate is to return a day or two after waiting for full sporination to find the mushrooms ground up by a mower or trampled underfoot by neighborhood children. The last possible enemy to Amanita growth is to be acidified rain. From my own experience I’ve noticed that Amanita populations are almost non-existent in the Eastern suburbs of our largest metropolitan area, while to the West they grow in incredible abundance. My only explanation is that the top soil in the East has become polluted by the airborne particles carried out of the city and dropped by rain in the Eastern suburbs, thereby inhibiting the production of mycelia.
Preparation and Ingestion
The most important aspect of Amanita muscaria preparation lies in the drying and/or of heating of the mushroom. What these two processes do is convert the less powerful ibotenic acid into the highly psychopharmacological chemical muscimol through decarboxylation. If this is not done then the inebriating potency of the mushroom is lessened.
The fresh mushroom may be roasted over an open flame via the Wasson technique, discovered by a friend of Wasson’s in Japan who roasted the mushroom over an open fire and then consumed it, experiencing euphoric effects. One technique that I have tried was over a fire as well, but was a little different. I took the unripened parasol caps and placed them upside down on a gas grill set on low. As the mushroom heated up, liquid condensed in the cup of the mushroom, which I drank. This produced a strong sense of euphoria in which I could not help but dance around and sing to myself (both very common reports by Siberians of A. muscaria intoxication). About two tablespoons of the liquid produced a very euphoric experience. One later thought was to take these same mushrooms after collecting the condensed liquid and to press out the remaining juices, but instead I swallowed the mushrooms in large pieces and retched horribly. I’ve also noticed that as I oven dry Amanitas, a liquid drains out of the mushrooms onto the cooking sheet. This liquid may be easily collected by taking the cooking sheet and attaching a screen of some sort a few centimeters above it, allowing the liquid to drip into the sheet and dry for later removal. But I believe a dehydrator is the best for keeping the original shape and color. One might even want to try expressing the juices from raw or rehydrated mushrooms and then heating the remaining liquid. This liquid may also be dehydrated and gel-capped.
If you have dried your mushrooms. one may simply eat them or else use the hot water method of preparation by bringing some water to the near simmer point, but not quite the rolling boil point, about 190 degrees, and adding the ground mushrooms. Let them cook in the water for about a half hour to an hour and then consume – water, ground mushrooms and all. For those of you who can’t stand the taste of dried mushrooms or mushroom tea (like myself who for some strange reason experiences the gag reflex the minute I try to swallow, and sometimes when I just smell), the gel-cap method may work best. Simply take the dried mushrooms, grind them up, and put into gel-caps. One might also make the tea, dehydrate it, and then place into gel-cap. I have never tried the tea method, but it may be possible that this method will increase the muscimol levels above drying, so this gel-cap method might be worth a try. Since the majority of the alkaloids reside within the skin of the cap it may also be worth it to either to peel and dry the skin of the fresh mushrooms, or else remove the gills from dried specimens to reduce the amount of plant matter consumed.
A few other less common methods may be worth mentioning. The first is the possibility that the juice of the mushroom can be absorbed through the skin. This method is described by Adrian Morgan in the wonderful book Toads and Toadstools, the only place I’ve ever heard of such an avenue of ingestion. This method may work best with dimethylsulfoxide (DMSO), an aprotic solvent. Another interesting method is by enema or direct insertion of the mushroom into the vagina – the second method certainly not being condoned as it may cause infection. In the excellent book Strange Fruit, by Clark Heinrich, it is suggested that in Tantric texts and art from India there is evidence pointing towards such routes of administration in highly symbolic rituals. Smoking the mushroom has also proven to produce mild effects. Since the skin contains the highest concentrations of muscimol it may be peeled off of fresh mushrooms and dried, or the gills and stem may be discarded from dried specimens. I personally would be interested in seeing the effects of smoked concentrated extract or pure muscimol.
The last method I would like to mention is the most interesting and may produce the strongest effects. This is to combine any of the above methods with the monoamine oxidase inhibiting seeds of Peganum harmala or an extract of that plant. I have never tried this method myself but am aware of one experiment which produced very strong effects. I have been awaiting a more detailed report from this acquaintance, but have yet to receive it. I first heard of this technique from an employee of an occult bookstore and herbal center which sells many uncontrolled “entheogens.” This employee, a practitioner of Wiccan magic, stated that if Peganum harmala is used with A. muscaria, the A. muscaria dosage may be cut in half. I first thought she was confusing her mushrooms, as a dosage of Psilocybin mushrooms may be halved when taken with P. harmala. I mentioned this to her, and to my surprise she stated that she has tried the A. muscaria/P. harmala combination. I later talked with the owner of the store who stated that there is a history of this combination. I personally am unaware of this type of usage in the entheogen community, but it is possible that it exists in Wiccan practices. Upon my mentioning of this combination on the old Visionary Plant List I received a response from JRH, who had mentioned this to J. Ott as a way to clear up the linguistic controversy of Wasson’s and Flattery’s opposing theories surrounding the plant/god Soma of the Rig Veda. JRH stated that Ott didn’t have anything to say about this possibility.
Due to environmental factors and the possibility that the time of harvesting effects the alkaloid level and composition of each mushroom, it is important to make an attempt to equalize the alkaloid content of the collection you have. This can be done by grinding up all the Amanita mushrooms you have into a powder, or else by dicing them into small chunks and thoroughly mixing them together. The powder is best used in the tea or gel cap method, while the diced mushrooms are good for eating dry or cooking with. If you have whole fresh mushrooms to be heated, or dried caps, each individual should get an equal portion of each mushroom so that everyone gets exactly the same amount and concentration of alkaloids. By doing this you can avoid differences in effects among the individual participants.
A couple interesting myths have surrounded these mushrooms for a number or years, which I have difficulty accepting due to the lack of any controlled scientific researcher. The first of these myths is that North American specimens lack the potency levels of Eurasian specimens. Personally, I don’t see how a scientific control group could be produced with a mushroom that is reputed to contain highly variable alkaloid contents from mushroom to mushroom. Now, if controlled experiments could be done in a lab environment with North American and Eurasian specimens grown in the same substrate and with identical environmental conditions in which the mushrooms would be tested for alkaloid concentrations, the results might be more reliable. (Yet, it could even be the tree that the mushroom grows under which defines the alkaloid content.) But until this sort of study is possible, I will take this myth as a drug enforcement lie created to discourage experimentation. Also, don’t forget that mushrooms are not plants that have difficulty traveling the world. The spores are easily transported through the air by wind currents, so I doubt there are massive differences between North American and Eurasian Amanita muscaria. Just a thought.
A second rumor is that A. muscaria collected in the beginning of the season are more potent, and less toxic to the system, than those collected towards the end of the season. I personally have not done any experimentation in this area, but I do believe that further scientific study is needed to verify this information. From what I understand, this myth has some support in the ethnobotanical lore of Siberian tribes.
Once you are ready to explore the realms of Amanita muscaria intoxication it is recommended that you start by equalizing the strength of the mushrooms using the above mentioned methods. A low dose trial is always necessary to test the power of the material you have and to examine how the body reacts to this particular collection of mushrooms. I believe 5 grams or less is a good starting point that may be gradually increased. Usually the first effects may be felt within the first half hour and vary according to each individual’s constitution, but any additional dosage should not be consumed until the effects are in full swing, about 2 hours after ingestion.
The Amanita Intoxication
The Amanita intoxication can be quite variable, and may include nausea, sweating, and salivation produced from a high level of muscarine in the mushroom, to the more desirous effects of euphoria, elevated mood, auditory and visual hallucinations, and increased strength and stamina produced by the muscimol, or, best of all, the overwhelming desire to dance and sing. It must be understood that within this mushroom is heaven and hell. While with one experiment you can find bliss, within the next you may find terror. In one experience you may feel power and strength and in the next the deepest somnambulance. This mushroom makes no guarantees, and I believe that it is just such a lack of predictability that has instilled this mushroom with such awe and mystery throughout the world. These are not organisms that you want to ingest carelessly, and I suggest that someone sober supervise any experience. Unless the individual seems truly in danger, refrain from calling an ambulance – the sickness will pass in time. Remember to first distinguish Amanita muscaria from its more deadly relatives, A. phalloides, A. ocreata, A. virosa, and A. verna, before gathering on your own. Each of these potentially deadly species can be differentiated from A. muscaria by the saclike volva. If you have any doubt whatsoever about a mushroom you have, discard it immediately.
Amanita cultivation in a lab environment has always been an impossibility due to the symbiotic mycorrhizal relationship of this mushroom to host trees. But, if one has the necessary host trees in the area, and resides in the proper temperate zone or elevation, one may take a few dried or fresh caps that are in sporination (fully flattened or upturning with longitudinal tears along the striations), crush them up thoroughly, and mix the crushings into the top soil. It is possible that this will allow mushrooms to grow in that area If one doesn’t want to make the initial investment of the caps, simply chop up the stems from sporinating specimens, which will naturally have collected some of the falling spores, and mix with the soil. Clark Heinrich states that he simply buries the stems under the proper host tree for cultivation, but then again he probably lives in the perfect environment. I would recommend that this process be done in the Fall soon after the fruiting season or in early Spring so that the spores can experience the proper season cycle. My own observations of Amanita growth suggest that mycelia growth takes place primarily throughout the Spring and Summer months and is highly dependent on rain and soil moisture preceding the Fall fruiting. If the season is dry, just water your mushroom garden every few days. A host tree in a large container that can be left outdoors year round may be a candidate for cultivation if one lives in the right zone.
I can’t help but reiterate to the reader that just because some modern people cannot seem to consistently feel the same effects from A. muscaria that the ancients are said to have experience, this in no way should lessen the theory of A. muscaria being the divine Soma of the 4000 year old Rig Veda and one of the world oldest religious sacraments. As is well know, shamanism isn’t just kicking back after ingesting an entheogen, the way which many modern psychonauts work with these medicines. Instead, archaic man was very proficient in many techniques to alter the state of awareness, and these techniques were no doubt used in combination with the medicines, altering the purely psychopharmacological effects of the mushrooms alkaloids. Modern man is also much more familiar with strong synthetic chemical hallucinogens. In our age of LSD, Psilocybin, and DMT, we can’t help but feel that anything less than the experiences these produce is not particularly desirable. But, to the ancient Siberians, whose familiarity with stronger entheogens was nonexistent, an Amanita experience, which can induce both heaven and hell, would certainly take on Godly proportions. It may even be possible that as the earliest waves of archaic man traveled the present day Americas they brought with them their Amanita traditions, nesting in a few spots such as the Pacific Northwest, Canada, the Great Lakes region, Mexico, and Guatemala, and that some sought out new allies in Psilocybe, Datura, and Cactaceae species, as well as in Yage and Ebena.
Our reference for a Godly entheogenic experience has changed from that of archaic mankind. Many believe this mushroom lacks entheogenic value, but history has shown that it has long been valued by mankind, throughout Europe, Siberia, and in the Americas. I think it is unwise to compare our Western philosophical understanding of A. muscaria to that of the religio-magical experiences of the ancients. This is a powerful mushroom that deserves our respect and attention as possibly being the ancient source for that which makes us human.
This document © 1997, 2000 M. S. Smith